When I began my career in the late nineties, I was working in Warsaw. There were not a lot of Americans, but a handful of us began to informally meet on Saturday mornings. Attendance was not required by our employer; it was just a bunch of people (mostly guys) who came into the office on the weekend to catch up on work or get an early jump on the week ahead. Being Americans so far from home probably also encouraged this time alone, together. A few months in, I missed a meeting. I don’t remember why I didn’t attend; I probably just had some other plans. The following Monday, one of my American colleagues asked me why I ‘missed the Saturday meeting’. The way he phrased it, it sounded like a scheduled formal business meeting that I was expected to attend. It wasn’t – but it shows how quickly we had normalised this loosely organised gathering into an official required meeting. The reality was that we had created a new work practice, and without an employer to set any rules, we created our own.
People need guidelines for hybrid work. And when they don’t exist, they create them.
The reality is that the last few years we have been making up the rules as we go. That’s not an indictment of anyone; the circumstances were extreme and there was no time for planning. Overnight the number of people working partly or fully remote skyrocketed. And it wasn’t just how we were working but why we were working that way. Understandably, we relaxed (or pushed back on) all the rules. Working from home had a meaning that extended beyond just geography. We dressed casually. We were forgiving when people didn’t know how to share a screen on Zoom or had to jump off to get an Amazon delivery. Again, the extreme circumstances made all those decisions at that time completely acceptable. However, our ad hoc work situation has become our permanent expectation, not unlike those Saturday morning meetings.
How do you create remote and hybrid meeting policies? We have always looked to our employers to make most decisions about how we work. To a certain degree, that is still necessary. The decisions will vary from organisation to organisation. Because hybrid work policies, like traditional in-person work policies, should reflect the culture and needs of each company. A client recently told me about their challenges when they told their team they had to wear a jacket and tie when meeting with clients remotely. There were complaints and pushback. But hybrid work doesn’t have to mean causal work, and it makes sense that companies are trying to re-implement some of the work expectations from the past. I recently came across this remote work policy from Rutgers University in America. They laid out the requirements for working from home in explicit detail. Everything from how to make sure your computer was secure to expectations about having a professional work environment (read: no children or pets popping up in the screen, an appropriate background, etc.).
As always, teams look to leaders for examples. The other issue with part remote work, without remote work policies, is the only way for teams to figure out the rules is to look at leaders. If your leaders are working from home late into the evening, others will follow their examples. And there is a trend now of everyone working much harder than before. A client of mine recently showed me his diary: six to eight hours of thirty-minute meetings back to back. And I mean literally no break in between. After all, when it’s all Zoom meetings, you can’t say you need time to change conference rooms. But your brain needs space. It needs to digest the old meeting and prepare for the next. Josh Hammonds posted on LinkedIn citing a Microsoft study on the dangers of this. Our brains still need to reset between meetings. Technology is allowing us to do things we shouldn’t. And leaders need to help us reinstate a meeting protocol that conference rooms used to – a natural break.
Setting up rules isn’t just about restrictions; it creates healthy boundaries.
People hear rules as ways to constrict their choices. But it also helps set boundaries, which could curb the emotional exhaustion of hybrid work. One of the biggest challenges to working from home is that it’s just too easy to keep working late into the evening. I have noticed more and more employees articulating when they’re available (and when they’re not). But it’s really on senior leadership to set the tone by example. Don’t email or call late into the evening or on weekends. Yes, you can expect for remote workers to be just as responsive to work from home as they were in the office. But you also should expect them not to be responsive in traditional off hours. Burnout in this new work environment has exploded, and that is almost certainly because we have lost the natural rhythm of leaving the physical place of work. And because we can so easily keep working, we do. But just because you can keep working, doesn’t mean you should. Without employers to tell their teams when to ‘show up’ and when to ‘go home’, the rules begin to create themselves. Those Saturday morning meetings in Warsaw normalised within months – we are now at the three-year anniversary of the pandemic. It is long past time to revisit our new work norms, and for employers to (re)set the rules.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.